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How Do We Fix MMA's Officiating Issues? Training and Accountability

There's no getting around it, MMA has some problems when it comes to officiating. I'm not just talking about suspect decisions. I'm talking about baffling interpretations of the rules inside the cage, including but not limited to bizarre stand-ups like the one that may or may not have cost former WWE star Bobby Lashley a win against Chad Griggs at Strikeforce: Houston last weekend.

In case you somehow missed it, referee Jon Schorle (who has a bit of a history of flubbing calls) opted to stand Lashley up out of the full mount in the second round. At first it seemed as though he was doing so to check the cut under Lashley's eye, but MMA Fighting has confirmed that Schorle actually brought the fighters to the feet because he felt Lashley wasn't active enough from the top position.

I'll pause a moment so you can take that in. Lashley had achieved full mount, one of the most dominant positions you can have, but he lost it when the referee decided that his occasional bursts of offense weren't enough to allow him to maintain the position he had earned.

Should that ever happen in an MMA fight? Absolutely not, according to the sport's most experienced referee, "Big" John McCarthy.

"There's positions you can stand guys up out of because they're neutral or they're close to neutral," McCarthy said, adding that guard or half-guard are the most common examples. "Once you get to, say, side control, the guy has gained a dominant position where he really cannot be hurt, but he can hurt his opponent. If he can damage his opponent from that position and his opponent can't damage him, who the hell is the referee to take that away from him?"

McCarthy himself was guilty of this infraction once, and only once. At UFC 17 in 1998 he took the full mount away from Jeremy Horn, who at the time was enjoying a dominant position against Frank Shamrock, but doing nothing much with it.

"He stayed mounted for about a minute and a half and did nothing. Just nothing," McCarthy said. "He based out and I told him, 'Jeremy you gotta work, you gotta do something,' and he stayed based out. I told him, 'I will stand you up if you don't do something,' and he didn't. I ended up standing him up and I felt like hell."

Horn would go on to lose the UFC light heavyweight title fight via kneebar submission, and afterwards McCarthy headed back to the locker room to talk to him. Hadn't Horn heard his warnings to stay busy, McCarthy asked? Horn replied that he heard them loud and clear.

"So I said, 'Then what were you thinking?'" McCarthy recalls now. "And he said, 'I was thinking, I'm mounted on Frank Shamrock and I don't want him to do anything to me.'"

They laugh about it now, but at the time it was serious business. Asked if he would make the same decision today, McCarthy admitted that he's not sure he would. The lingering doubt highlights one of the problems with the state of MMA officiating: when it comes to stuff like stand-ups, there's a lot that's left up to each individual referee to interpret for himself.

Take the issue of the dominant position, for instance. Once a fighter goes to the trouble of securing side control or mount, putting himself in a safe place and his opponent in a very precarious one, how much work is enough to warrant him staying there? Is there an average number of strikes per minute he needs to maintain? Does he need to be constantly setting up a submission of some kind, and if so, what if the set-up, which is bound to be subtle so as not to tip off his opponent, is too subtle for the referee to notice?

They're tough questions to begin with, and they aren't covered in any MMA referee handbook. As I learned when I talked to NSAC executive director Keith Kizer, there's not exactly a formal process for selecting referees and/or judges and ensuring that they all have a certain base level of knowledge.

It's mostly a matter of turning in a resume that shows some experience, having a good track record with some commission somewhere on the planet, and not owing any back child support. Commissions just don't go through the trouble of making certain that every referee knows what it's like to be trapped in mount, or knows what positions a certain submission move can and can't be finished from. Often when we find out how much they don't know, it's too late.

As McCarthy put it, "Some guys don't understand what the fighters are doing. When you see a guy in side control using his shoulder pressure on someone to get him to move and open up, if you've never been there, how do you know what it's like? You don't. It just looks like one guy laying on another."

This brings us to another problem. Say a referee screws up. Say it's a big screw-up that potentially changed the outcome of the fight. Now what? Who tells the commission that this isn't somebody they should use again, at least not until he proves that he knows what he's doing in there?

At the moment, no one. There's no system of formal review for MMA refs, according to McCarthy.

"As a boxing referee, you get evaluated on your performance. There's a panel of older referees who are retired, so you know they're not trying to mark you down so they can get a better assignment. But they've been assigned by the commission to be the graders, so they grade you when you do a show. And you get graded usually three to six times a year. The biggest problem we have in MMA is, who do we have to do that? We don't have those older referees who can do that."

The closest thing we have, as it turns out, is a network of experienced refs like McCarthy. There's never an instance where a major refereeing decision is made in a major event where he doesn't get a call afterwards, McCarthy said. They critique each other, they offer honest assessments and advice for improvement -- it's helpful, but it's all informal and non-binding. It has no effect on who the commission selects to work the next event.

The lack of coherent, consistent guidelines for referees, combined with the lack of any necessary certification or meaningful performance evaluation, well, it's a problem.

The third person in the cage on any given fight night has the ability to have a profound effect on a fighter's career and paycheck. They're responsible for ensuring fairness and safety in every sanctioned bout. Shouldn't we have some official system for making sure they're competent at performing that task, and some actual consequences for them if they aren't?

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